I’d like to recommend ‘Wild Seed’

I can’t think why I’ve not read anything by Octavia Butler before. Surely she’s been available.  My copy of Wild Seed is from the Victor Gallancz Science Fiction series, and there are elements of science about this fiction.  But I’m not so sure it’s the category I would have shelved it under. Maybe I haven’t been looking closely enough at the genre sections lately.

The setting is recognisably historical, it begins in 1690s Africa: 

Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see about what was left of one of his seed villages.  The village was a comfortable mud-walled place surrounded by grasslands and scattered trees. But Doro realized even before he reached it that its people were gone.  Slavers had been to it before him. With their guns and their greed, they had undone in a few hours the work of a thousand years.

This is a time so far away from most of our experiences that it is easy to accept that word ‘seed’ dropped into the first sentence.  Perhaps it’s a contemporary word.

Then again, what does the reference to ‘a thousand years‘ mean? What is the work that has such a long history, and how is Doro related to it?  

These questions are first indications that we are in the company of a character who has special characteristics.  Not only does he have control over several villages, it’s apparent he has no need of companions.

It was a matter of pride with him that he protected his own.  Not the individuals, perhaps, but the groups.  They gave him their loyalty, their obedience, and he protected them.

He had failed.

What I liked about this opening is that Butler doesn’t pause to explain, she continues to describe Doro’s responses to the situation.  There’s a sense of pace that keeps the reader moving, leaves no time to query or question.  If they wish to keep up with Doro, they must accept the unexpected revelations. 

He wandered southwest toward the forest, leaving as he had arrived – alone, unarmed, without supplies, accepting the savanna and later the forest as easily as he accepted any terrain.

 The suspicion, the improbable idea, that Doro is exceptional is building.

He had not been this far west for several hundred years, thus he could be certain that whatever, whoever he found would be new to him – new and potentially valuable.  He moved on eagerly.

 

That was the moment the story truly hooked me, several hundred years? Doro was interesting, a puzzle.  I wanted to know about the something that drew him away from the importance of reclaiming his missing villagers. It had to be powerful, and my money was on ‘the woman‘ mentioned in the first line. 

I’d been waiting for her return. She was a promise, a foreshadowing of a significant introduction, and I wanted to know more.  Butler soon brings her into focus.

Anyanwu’s ears and eyes were far sharper than those of other people.  She had increased their sensitivity deliberately after the first time men came stalking her, their machetes ready, their intentions clear.  She had had to kill seven times on that terrible day – seven frightened men who could have been spared – and she had nearly died herself, all because she let people come upon her unnoticed.  Never again.

From one promise to the next.  Here’s my woman, and she’s not going to be a push-over, even for Doro.  I’m on the second page, and there’s already so much at stake I’m getting deeply tangled. 

Anyanwu has a conscience.  She is not a psychopath, the list of her killings are qualified in the same sentence, by the language: ‘that terrible day‘, and her understanding that the men were ‘frightened‘.  Her recognition that their deaths were due to her failure tells me a lot about her personality.  Yes, I’m hooked, I read and read.

Is it science fiction or fantasy? I’m not sure that matters.  It’s a story that is escapist, and yet it’s also about slavery, power structures and race.  There are three more books in this Patternist series, plenty of pages to make my mind up.

Ursula K. Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness.

left hand of darknessIf you’re not a science fiction reader you may not have heard of this author, and maybe those of you who aren’t are already preparing to skip past this post.  Indulge me for a moment though, step into another world of writing.  Why? For all the usual reasons we have for reading.

I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

So says Genly Ai, at the start of The Left Hand of Darkness. Genly Ai is an envoy for Ekumenical Scope, an alliance of eighty-three habitable planets, trying to invite the world of Winter to join them in interplanetary trade.

Is it other worlds that bother non-science fiction readers? If so, think of Le Guin as your holiday guide to Winter. She’ll provide you with views of the local customs and some of the most interesting characters, explain the history and culture through a variety of voices, leaving you to read between the lines – if you choose.

The drawing of comparisons, the tracing of a ‘proper…equivalent’, is what strangers in strange lands do.  So, we mostly follow Genly, yet Genly is not quite us either: his Earth, we gradually realise, is not our Earth. It sounds utopian, with its ability to deal honestly, and it’s codes of conduct.  He seems a sophisticated contrast to the suspicions and fears of Winter.

Winter is in an ice-age.

Fires in Karhide are to warm the spirit not the flesh.  The mechanical-industrial Age of Invention in Karhide is at least three thousand years old, and during those thirty centuries they have developed excellent and economical central-heating devices using steam, electricity and other principles, but they do not install them in their houses.  Perhaps if they did they would lose their physiological weatherproofing, like Arctic birds kept warm in tents, who being released get frostbitten feet.  I, however, a tropical bird, was cold; cold one way outdoors and cold another way indoors, ceaselessly and more or less thoroughly cold.

If the story were told only by Genly, it would be a simple tale.  Instead it’s threaded through with reports from earlier visitors; fragments of Winter history and the events experienced by Estraven, a seasoned politician, ‘one of the most powerful men in the country’.

When this novel was published in 1969, it became part of the feminist debate about gender, sex, culture and society. Forty-eight years later the central premise, of a race that is androgynous, and remain that way ‘when kept alone’, and that ‘normal individuals have no predisposition to either sexual role….do not know whether they will be the male or the female, and have no choice in the matter’, seems to fit with contemporary debates around gender definitions and identities.

Cultural shock was nothing much compared to the biological shock I suffered as a human male among human beings who were, five-sixths of the time, hermaphrodite neuters.

There’s more though.  This novel investigates displacement and asylum issues.  On some levels, it examines atrocities of the past, but in doing so, it shines a light on what is happening now.

Le Guin’s use of two narrators forces us to think about what divides or unites them.

Everything I had said, tonight and ever since I came to Winter, suddenly appeared to me as both stupid and incredible.  How could I expect this man or any other to believe my tales about other worlds, other races, a vague benevolent government somewhere off in outer space?  It was all nonsense…my own explanations were preposterous.  I did not, in that moment, believe them myself.

Reading back through this post, I notice that I’ve been so busy presenting the subtleties that I’ve failed to tell you it is a story of incident, of movement and conflicts.  Worthy as all of the above arguments are, the real reason for reading this book is because it hooks you.  I hope it might, science fiction fan or not.

Brave Worlds

best new sci fiI’ve been reading of other worlds for the last two weeks, dipping into The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 15.  For those in the know, that means I’ve actually been looking back, as the fifteenth Annual Collection was published in 2002.

It was a second-hand impulse buy that I regretted as soon as I got home, because there was no shelf space for it – at 702 pages, this really is a mammoth book. Something needed to be read if I wasn’t going to start heaping books on the floor.

Given the technological advances of the last eleven years, I assumed that most of the twenty-six stories would seem dated.  This meant firstly, that my new book was not something to leave sitting around on a shelf much longer, and secondly, that it would probably mean a speedy skim reading, so I could recycle it straight back to the bookshop and solve my space dilemma.

What was I thinking?  Well probably of something much simpler than this selection of writing.  Stories, perhaps, predicting how science will advance.

Remember 1983?  No, that’s not a typo, I mean the year.  I’m thinking back to how we anticipated the convergence of reality with the fictional world George Orwell created for Nineteen eighty-four.  There was even a new film of the book made, released in 1984.  As we headed for December 31st 1983, didn’t we get a little bit caught-up in that analysis of what had come true and how far from an Orwellian world we were?  Phew, we thought, at least we haven’t turned out like that: at least we still have some freedoms, and aren’t we lucky, really?

Because the thing I always forget about sci-fi, is that the science is just the icing.  The real body, the ingredients of the cake, are the characters we identify with.  A science fiction does not necessarily need masses of technology.  What most of the stories in my Mammoth book offered were the eternal stories of love, loss and hope.  They came in unfamiliar shapes and often bleak landscapes but they played out familiar human scenarios.

new scientistSo were they dated?  No.  Perhaps in another ten years some of the ideas will seem far-fetched, but I’m not sure that matters.  I’m still re-reading HG Wells and John Wyndam, and they’re playing on our TVs and radios every so often, despite having been overtaken by many advances.

So what makes a successful Science Fiction story?  Perhaps it would pay us to remember Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s theory about the suspension of disbelief.  He suggested two key ingredients for tellers of fantastic tales,  ‘human interest and a semblance of truth’. It seems to me that most of the stories in my Mammoth book were about semblances of truth, most of them hard, and dark.  Warnings perhaps not of the dangers of technology, but of our own natures.

These are not just stories for teenage geeks, they’re something we might all benefit from trying out once in a while, as readers and as writers, because they epitomize that fundamental question of the fiction writer, What if..?  Perhaps, for those who long to write of injustices, social or otherwise, it might be worth thinking about describing the world to come if you really want us to notice the here and now.

As to the Mammoth book, I think I will pass it on, but I’m going to look out for another one, so I’d better get reading a space onto my shelf after-all.  It’s just one difficult decision after another here.